Syrian Troops Start Withdrawal From Besieged City

May 5, 2011 - 6:41 AM

Beirut (AP) - The Syrian army began a gradual withdrawal Thursday from a southern city at the heart of the uprising against the country's authoritarian regime, 11 days after President Bashar Assad unleashed tanks and snipers to crush dissent there.

Syria's state-run TV and news agency said that the military had "carried out its mission in detaining terrorists" and restored calm to Daraa, some 80 miles (130 kilometers) from the capital Damascus. Quoting an unnamed military official, the report said there will be a "gradual withdrawal" from Daraa.

Assad is determined to crush the revolt, which began in mid-March inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The unrest has become the gravest challenge to his family's 40-year dynasty. Assad has used a combination of brute force, intimidation and promises of reform to quell the unrest, but his attempts have failed so far.

Syrian activists were planning to take to the streets again on Friday -- the main day for protests in the Arab world -- for what they are calling a "Day of Defiance."

More than 550 people have been killed since the uprising began as security forces cracked down on protests. Scores of soldiers also have been reported killed.

The mounting death toll -- and the siege in Daraa -- have only served to embolden protesters who are now demanding nothing less than the downfall of Assad's regime.

At U.N. headquarters in New York, spokesman Martin Nesirky said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke with Assad by telephone Wednesday and told him "now is the time for bold and decisive measures, for political reforms."

Nesirky said the U.N. chief also asked that Syria cooperate with the commission set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council, and "allow in a humanitarian assessment team given the widespread concerns in the international community."

Syria blames the unrest on a foreign conspiracy and "terrorist groups" that it says have taken advantage of protests.

Since they descended on Daraa, the troops have cut off electricity and telephone services, and snipers have fired at residents who ventured outdoors. There were also reports that security forces shot at rooftop water tanks, a vital supply of water in the bone-dry region.

About 50 people have been reported killed in Daraa violence over the past 11 days.

The uprising in Syria was sparked by the arrest of teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall in the city. Protests spread quickly across the nation of some 23 million people.

Assad inherited power from his father in 2000, and has maintained close ties with Iran and Islamic militant groups such as Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Also Thursday, a human rights activist said Syrian security forces conducted a major raid in a suburb of the capital Damascus detaining more than 200 people.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the raid in Saqba occurred in the early hours of Thursday after authorities cut telecommunications in the area.

Syrian security forces have arrested thousands of people since an uprising began.